What is Autism?

foster carer supporting autistic girl

What is Autism?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental difference. This means that autistic children process information in a different way to non-autistic children.

Estimates tell us that between 1 and 2 children out of every 100 are autistic, and the number of children diagnosed with autism increases every year.

Every child is different, every autistic child is different.

Autism is not a learning disability nor a mental illness. Some autistic children have learning disabilities in addition to being autistic. Some non autistic children have learning disabilities in addition to being non-autistic.

Some non-autistic children experience emotional or mental health problems. More autistic children experience emotional or mental health problems than non autistic children.

Each autistic child has certain characteristics, which present in different ways in different children.

Autism affects more boys than girls, though autistic girls don’t present in the same way as boys and often hide their differences; therefore many girls are missed.


The cause of autism is not known, but there are likely to be complex factors involved. Most researchers believe there is a genetic cause, and some think that this is triggered by an environmental factor.

As the cause of autism is not known, there is no test for autism. Diagnosis is made based on characteristics or behaviours.

Diagnosing autism

The characteristics that are explored as part of a diagnostic assessment for autism include :

  • Differences in the way a child interacts with others (including how they communicate, engage with others and develop relationships)
  • Preferences for sameness (including engaging in routines, repeating actions / behaviours or choosing to engage in the same activities)
  • Sensory differences (including being more or less sensitive to stimuli)

Autism is part of a child’s neurology, and therefore these characteristics are part of who they are. A diagnostic assessment will involve many professionals who will seek information about a child both currently and in the past, and across different environments (such as school, home and clinic). When characteristics have been present since the early years and across different settings, the diagnostic team will diagnose the child as having autism spectrum disorder.

Find out more about autism diagnostic assessment here

Understanding Autism

Autistic Boy playing with frame

Most explanations of autism focus on the characteristics outlined above. In recognising or diagnosing autism, the focus on the characteristics and patterns of behaviours that indicate autism is important.

Following diagnosis, it is essential that these ‘impairments’ or ‘difficulties’ are taken into consideration, but it becomes more important to understand autistic strengths when offering support.

Autism is so much more than a set of diagnostic criteria.

For every autistic difficulty there is a strength. Often a difficulty experienced by a non-autistic child is a strength experienced by an autistic child – and vice versa.

To help a child with autism develop, learn and build confidence adults need to understand strengths and differences.

Challenging behaviour, anxiety, self harm and phobias are not part of autism. Many autistic children experience these difficulties because they are expected to function in a world that focuses on children with a different neurology or their needs are not understood or they have not been provided with the right support and interventions.

Autistic children flourish when they are accepted, when adults play to their strengths and when their difficulties are supported. Just like children who are not autistic.

Find out more about our autism training here

Accepting Autism

It can be difficult for non- autistic people to understand and accept autism as a difference rather than an illness or condition that needs ‘fixing’. There is no ‘cure’ for autism, autism is part of who an autistic child is.

A child’s autism does not need ‘fixing’, but they may need help with specific issues such as anxiety or behaviour or different support to learn new skills.

An autistic child will have different strengths, difficulties and preferences to a non-autistic child. This may mean that the things that non-autistic children enjoy are simply not enjoyable for them and vice versa. Attempting to make an autistic child behave like a non-autistic child are distressing for everyone involved, and can really impact on a child’s self esteem.

Find out more about how we can help with specific difficulties here